Upskilling Anchorage’s workforce to fill employment gaps

  • The Anchorage unemployment rate spiked during the pandemic and some 10,000 workers remain unemployed. (Source: University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, with data from the State of Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development)

Last July as COVID-19 cases surged, Dynaa Montgomery was surprised to learn that she was considered an “essential employee” by her company.

She is a data collector for an out-of-state corporation, and much of her work involves visiting retailers in Anchorage and surrounding areas to do comparison pricing.

Montgomery says she was concerned about working during the pandemic, and the experience made her feel like her company chose to disregard the wellbeing of its employees. She began thinking about finding a different job but didn’t feel like she could leave her current position.

“I still had to eat! That doesn’t stop,” says Montgomery. “And it wasn’t the first time I had to work somewhere I didn’t like. Quitting wasn’t an option.”

When she heard about Upskilling Anchorage, she thought it might be just what she needed to find a new job with higher pay and potential for growth.

Launched in March 2021 with Federal COVID-19 relief funding from the Municipality of Anchorage’s 49th State Angel Fund, gener8tor Upskilling Anchorage is a free self-paced virtual skills training program for under- and unemployed individuals looking to gain new career skills.

A new, responsive kind of workforce development, upskilling is the process of using training to build on or advance existing skills and quickly addresses workforce needs with freshly educated workers.

By delivering no-cost training in a condensed period of time (Upskilling Anchorage programs are five to 10 weeks long depending on the career track) participants are able to sharpen their skills without the sizable investment of time and money necessitated by a traditional degree or certificate program, and upon completion are more attractive to prospective employers.

Montgomery, who is finishing up a bachelor’s degree in human services from the University of Alaska Anchorage next year, says that her Customer Service certificate is complementary to her degree.

“Having a background in customer service is helpful no matter where you work; you have to be able to communicate with people and understand how they perceive you,” she said. “And, this certificate helps me right now; I’m still a student and have student bills! Anything that can help me increase my earning potential before graduation is awesome.”

Currently, Anchorage is home to an estimated 10,000 unemployed individuals, who are generally younger on average than the workforce at large, and largely from lower-paying jobs in retail and the service sector.

Prolonged periods of unemployment, like that caused by COVID-19, can cause skills to atrophy, and potentially result in long-term earning losses, reduced physical and psychological health, and other effects lasting years.

Workforce training offerings can combat some of these effects by enhancing the employability of individuals.

“We are training people who are actively looking for jobs or who want to show their current employers that they’re invested in adding to their expertise,” said Upskilling Anchorage Program Manager Gianna Varrati. “I know so many people hiring right now — I have a list of 300 employers and growing — and they will definitely take a look at our graduates!”

Areas of focus are targeted towards those seeking full-time employment in a variety of in-demand fields such as web development, marketing, or information technology. The opportunity to embrace modern, virtually-delivered skill development to take advantage of both local and remote job opportunities represents a significant benefit for workers and employers alike.

“We work with our partners to help us identify where employers really need skilled employees, and that guides our focus for each cohort,” Varrati said. “Customer service came up a lot, and that’s the cohort that just wrapped up. Next we are focusing on IT Help Desk skills.”

Local community collaborating partners include the State of Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Anchorage Economic Development Corp., University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, and Anchorage Community Land Trust.

Workforce readiness — the basic academic, critical thinking, and interpersonal skills for successful employment — is a perennial problem in Alaska.

Employers often report that they’re helping new hires develop basic skills that should be a prerequisite to employment instead of something learned on the job.

As part of the Upskilling program, participants receive one-on-one resume building, LinkedIn profile and cover letter writing, and interview preparation assistance, along with regular support from the gener8tor team and the opportunity to connect with national experts in their area of focus.

They engage in weekly webinars that address soft skills through webinars like “Developing Your Emotional Intelligence,” “Teamwork Foundations,” and “Effective Listening,” and offer job search content like “A Career Strategist’s Guide to Getting a Job” and “Video Interview Tips.”

Montgomery says that the job search support was invaluable.

“I hadn’t updated my resume for three or four years because it had been awhile since I looked for a job,” she said.

“The courses got me familiar with how to organize my resume, prepare for interviews, and not be so nervous.”

At the end of the program, participants are invited to participate in an “Interview Swarm,” or virtual job fair, where they will be connected to employers hiring in the industries in which they have obtained certifications through Upskilling.

“Our intent is to help the community employ the community first, but if one of our graduates can’t find the opportunity they’re looking for, we are connected to people hiring remote workers outside of Alaska too,” says Varrati.

“But we are focusing first on connecting people to employment within the state of Alaska.”

Montgomery has already had two interviews with more to come.

“I definitely feel hopeful,” she said.

“Before I’d go through an interview and guess what they wanted to hear, but in the course we heard directly from employers about what they were expecting and looking for, and that was really useful.”

The next Upskilling Anchorage cohort will focus on IT Help Desk skills, and will run from Aug. 30 to Oct. 22.

Applications are open to those ages 18 and above, and although the program is available to all who apply, Varatti says they’re looking for people who are dedicated to the process.

“Our ideal applicant is someone who is going to put the time and effort into finishing the modules, will check in with their career coach each week, and will be active in our lunch and learns,” said Varatti.

Montgomery says that anyone considering taking a course from Upskilling Anchorage should go for it.

“I feel like it opened my prospects up, and now I see things differently,” she said. “It gave me a leg up because I’m more marketable and they help you get job interviews!”

Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach. She was named to the Alaska Journal of Commerce Top Forty Under 40 in 2013.

Updated: 
07/21/2021 - 10:15am